Healing A Mother’s Pain By Forgiving A Killer
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
Photo by Maya Trabulsi
At 1:30 in the morning in May of 2012, Bevelynn Bravo was woken by a knock on the door. Two detectives had come to tell her that her son was dead. Her 21-year-old son, Jaime Bravo Jr., was stabbed and left to die as he walked out of friend’s house in City Heights.
“So I asked the detectives to take me to the scene where I had been many times before with other families. Now I was about to be at mine,” she said.
As a volunteer first responder for the San Diego Compassion Project since 2010, Bravo had become accustomed to dealing with tragedy at a crime scene. She offered emotional and administrative support to the families of homicide victims, never expecting to one day be stricken by the same grief she helped ease in others.
“(The killers) didn't know my son, but I believe that day was some sort of gang day,” said Bravo. “I really don't like highlighting them because I feel that they get honor for that.”
She spent 5 years in court until two men were finally convicted of Jaime’s murder.
“I went into court crying for the son that I had lost, and I left crying for these young people that decided to take my son's life.”
Just as she had helped grieving mothers before becoming one herself, Bravo used her own tragic story to effect change. Together with other moms of murdered sons and daughters, she formed a group called Mothers with a Message.
“It's a mother's pain. We carry our child for nine months and when that child is taken at whatever age that may be, something inside of you dies,” said Bravo.
The women took their grief into the community, hoping to divert youth before more murders took place. But they alway wanted to reach out to men who had already gone down that path - and ended up in the correctional system. And that is where Dennis Martinez knew their message would be taken most to heart.
Skateboards and salvation
“When I heard that story, when she shared that time for the first time, you could hear a pin drop and I knew that this was going to be a success,” said Dennis Martinez.
Martinez is a former skateboard champion, winning the 1977 World Freestyle, and 1978 U.S. skateboard championship titles. But by the time he was 18-years-old, he was in the grip of drug addiction that was leading him to crime to support his dependency.
“I had to rob to get the money to get the dope, to get the needle, to get the hotel room, to get the girl. I was stuck,” said Martinez.
It wasn’t until his best friend was sentenced to serve 678-years in prison, that Martinez knew his life had to change. “So if he was my crime partner at that time, he got 678 years, just imagine what I deserve,” said Martinez.
Martinez owns and operates Training Center San Diego. It’s a state-licensed and certified faith-based drug and alcohol residential treatment facility that is designed to transition offenders back to life on the outside. The center offers counselling services, housing, and workshops for rehabilitation and diversion. Martinez is no stranger to working inside state prisons.
“I don't care if they're blasted with tattoos or whatever crime they've committed, if they're willing to change, I’m willing to work with them,” he said.
Together, Dennis and Mothers with a Message created a curriculum of rehabilitation which they then brought inside the walls of California state prisons.
“They were scared when they heard that we were going to come in because it was going to make them face the reality of what they had done,” Bravo said of working with offenders. “We’re that face or that face of the victim and they have to see it and they have to hear it.”
His faith in the power of the mothers is profound.
“You can never go back in time and change what took place, but you sure darn can change this moment right now and move forward to make sure that it never happens again,” Martinez said. “I need the right tools to accomplish this. I need the shotgun blast and the Mothers with a Message is my shotgun blast.”
A crooked path
“I shot and killed somebody. I was arrested, convicted, and sent to prison on a 20 to life sentence,” said Matthew Conant, who entered the prison system when he was 19-years-old.
He served 25 years, mostly in level 4, maximum security prisons across the state of California. He says it took him 15 years and a long list of behavioral infractions before he would change his mentality, never expecting to be released.
“It was hell on earth. It was the most violence I've ever seen and participated in,” Conant said. “I had lived like I was going to die in prison.”
Conant said the mothers, and their message, helped him change the cycle of violence he had become accustomed to before and inside prison.
“If you're any bit of a human being or have any humanity left in you, when you hear their story, you can't help but realize what you did and, and despise what you did,” said Conant “So, the class is priceless. The women are brave women to come in there, into the lion's den, to the same people that did harm to their families.”
Conant is now a free man. He’s known by the rapper name, ‘EMCY,’ and joins Martinez at the Training Center and inside the prisons. He uses original rap music, like his song, ‘Crooked Path,’ and personal testimony to help offenders reconstruct their perspective on their committed crimes.
For many offenders it takes years, even decades in prison, before they can humanize their victim. Martinez says through the Mothers with a Message workshop, the inmates hear redemption and forgiveness.
“And a lot of them break down because a lot of them want to get to their victims’ families and say they're so sorry for what they've done, but they don't know how to say it. And so they get there and they hear this and they break down. The hardest of the hardest criminals crying,” Martinez said.
Inside Centinela State Prison
Just as they do every Monday morning, in the early morning of March 11th, Martinez and Mothers with a Message rode a convoy of vehicles to Centinela State Prison, located in Imperial County. It is a level 3 (high) and level 4 (maximum) security prison, housing high-risk offenders serving longer sentences. Today’s group includes four moms - Bevelynn Bravo, Lisa Ortiz, Alejandra Sambrano, and Elizabeth Munoz. Together, they teach a 16-week worksop that helps inmates take responsibility for their crimes, in turn preparing them for the potential to face their victims’ families in parole hearings.
“They don't really know what happens to their victims’ family because after they get sent to prison, they just start doing their time and they don't see that person. They don't see that family,” Bravo said. “And so when we come in, they get to see that. They get to really experience, ‘Look at what you did’.”
In B-yard, it’s a sea of blue and green uniforms as each inmate is carefully patted down by one of several guards. Inmates then drop their IDs into a box before taking their seats in a small classroom at the end of the hall. Some of these men have been incarcerated since they were teenagers, and some may never be eligible for parole. But they have all come to listen, and even to say sorry.
“I'm sorry? ‘Sorry’ doesn't cover it. ‘Sorry’ to a lot of people is a word and it doesn't cover the pain. How do you…how do you give a mom her child back? You can’t. How do you give the children their dad back? You can’t,” said Jason Hernandez, an inmate serving an 84 years-to-life sentence. “At my trial, I had the audacity to come in and blow a kiss at the family. My behavior was shameful. That's not how a man should act. That's not how a human being should act. Human beings deserve dignity.”
Another inmate who talked about the class is Antonio Cruz.
“I love this class. I live to understand those mothers that have lost their kids to gang violence. I know I owe them more than an apology. I owe them my life,” said Cruz, who is 38-years-old and has already served 22 years on a murder conviction. “What was to me a gang member, was the son to his mother, was a father, was the uncle, was a role model to his sisters or brother.”
“It took me like two days to get over just her message, her story, just feeling her staring at me. I felt it, it hurt,” said Gabriel Bonilla, an inmate who said hearing from the mothers spurred him, and others, to action. “And then that's when we came together and we said, what can we do? What can we give back?”
“So we all just came together and came up with the idea that we should do something with art,” said Ellis Dillon, a 28-year-old inmate serving time for robbery.''
Art from behind the walls
The inmates got organized, and delegated tasks to create an event on the outside of the prison that would benefit families of homicide. They crossed racial lines, recruiting artists to create and donate artwork created from what they had available to them - pen, pencil, watercolor, and pastels.
One of the inmates, Michael Moore, asked his wife to help organize an auction of “Art From Behind the Walls.”
“And next thing you know, black, white, brown, it didn't even matter what ratio, they were coming together for a good cause,’ said Martinez, who helped coordinate the auction inside a donated space at Alpha House in San Diego. “And some of the guys that couldn't draw would pay the artists to draw a picture for them because they just wanted to participate in this,” Martinez said.
Conant, who performed his original rap music at the event said the cooperation between different races is generally unheard of in a maximum security prison. “On a level four where there's the most politics, the most violence in prison, to have these guys from different gangs, different races come together for a cause...and to not be compensated for it.”
Martinez said the emotions can run deep in this kind of project.
“And if that’s even the first time somebody in the prison had done something good, that feeling that they get…they’re going to start chasing that and the next thing you know that life is changed,” he said. “They are going to get out of prison and they’re going to go home and they’re going to become a productive member of society. That’s how that ripple effect works.”
All the pieces were sold with proceeds donated to the families of new victims to help pay for headstones, burial clothes, or mortuary costs. A small token to ease the life sentence still being served by those left behind.
Bevelynn Bravo still responds to homicides across San Diego County for UPAC - Alliance For Community Empowerment. For her, Mothers with a Message has transcended its original purpose of changing the hearts and minds of murderers.
“I thought I was going there to see what I could give them, but they actually did something for me because my heart was in a lot of pain, and they offered me a little bit of a peace,” she said. “And it just heals your heart.”
Mothers with a Message walks a path of forgiveness by making murderers understand what they’ve done. - PART ONE
Mothers with a Message walks a path of forgiveness by making murderers understand what they’ve done. - PART TWO
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